You may not know Milauna Jackson by name, but you’ve seen her somewhere. Having had guest starring roles on ABC’s Flash Forward, TNT’s Rizzoli and Isles, and NBC’s Aquarius with a starring role on Cinemax’s Strike Back, Milauna is one of those rare actors for whom playing different roles is natural and being typecast doesn’t come easy.
This season, Milauna joined the cast of ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder as Annalise Keating’s professional (and personal!) rival, Assistant District Attorney Rene Atwood. Talk Nerdy With Us caught up with her on the phone and asked her a few questions about being the incomparable Milauna Jackson and what it’s like being on a hit show.
What is it that draws you towards acting as opposed to say, being a veterinarian?
Growing up, I actually wanted to be a doctor (laughs), but I also wanted to be an actor, and I didn’t know how quite to navigate this world of acting. I was bitten by the acting bug quite early. So I think that’s what drove me towards actually pursuing acting. I went to a performing arts high school which gave me a bit of insight into the craft of it. And alongside my acting classes, I was in AP Biology. So I was still kind of teetering between the world of science and theatrics.
I think my mom was basically the quintessential force in telling me that I could absolutely pursue both if I wanted to, and just that if I chose to pursue acting, then do it with work. Through school and college and really taking some time to figure out how many years I’d have to devote to either career, I realized that I could always become a doctor. I could always get my Ph.D. or MBA in something. I may not necessarily have to open a practice and go through that in terms of those steps. But acting is something that would just never go away and it kind of blended over basically.
What drew you to this particular role?
What’s interesting is that I never auditioned for this role. I actually auditioned for an entirely different role. I went in and met with Pete Nowalk and the director of the episode, and I received a call later stating that they wanted me but not for the role I originally auditioned for. (laughs) They wanted me for a completely different role. So I said, “Okay, what’s the role?” All they told me was that was she was going to be an ADA with an entirely different name. I forget the name now. And so I thought, “well, the last time I worked on ABC was Flash Forward, but I’ve never worked on Shondaland” and I thought, “How bad could the role be? It’s Shondaland! I’ll be the ADA, and I’ve never played an attorney before.”
So, from my perspective creatively, these were all bonuses. I had no information other than the fact that I was a district attorney. [The show’s producers said] “if she wants it, this is who she’ll be playing.” So I told my team, “I’ll do it. Let them know! Send them my information!” They sent me the sides; it was a trial scene, and I said, “This is cool. I’ll be prosecuting this case against Annalise Keating. Wow, that’ll be fun!” While filming, I decided to make a few choices that I believed would bring [the character] to life a little more. When I started off the offer was originally for just one episode. Possibly two. Now I’ve shot five.
How does it feel joining such a diverse cast?
I’m a woman of color. I’m an African-American actress in this business, and it’s rare that I get a chance to be in a cast, be on a show as diverse as this that’s not just checking off one box. “Okay, we just need a woman and make her a woman of color.” With my character, there was nothing in the breakdown that said she had to be any ethnicity. Usually, in television and film, that’s very rare. If there’s a woman of a specific type, whatever type that is, [Hollywood will] usually try to do the anti-thesis of that. Even if it’s a blonde character, they’ll think, “Well, do we want another blonde in the courtroom? Offset her somehow. Maybe she should be a brunette, or maybe we should make her a man, or maybe if she’s short, let’s go tall” and it’s just so you can see the contrast.
So the fact that on How to Get Away with Murder, you see two brown-skinned women in this world of law is great and totally realistic. I have friends who are professionals. I’ve been to the African-American Bar Association events, and there were more women than there were men! So, it’s not like it’s improbable. But to be on a show that shows that this world is a lot more realistic than people think is amazing.
The How to Get Away with Murder cast has been together going on three years now. Did you find it difficult to join in on such a pre-established cast relationship?
I’ve been a series regular on a show before, and you do sort of establish as a family. Obviously, you work with these people on a daily basis for the duration of the season, and so it’s always interesting when a guest comes in, specifically if it’s a one day job. You get to meet the cast and crew. And when you come back a second time, it’s like, “Oh, welcome back!” And then you come back again, it’s like, “Oh, I see you! You’re doing some good stuff they want you back!” So, the more time you spend on a set, the stronger the relationship and the bond that comes.
Thus far that we’ve seen, my very first episode was in the courtroom, so I obviously had a chance to connect and bond with the Keating five as well as Viola [Davis]. Then my other scenes with Billy [Brown] were just Billy and me. So you develop these relationships, and you develop this rapport with people, particularly if you spend a number of days with them and episodes with them. It was definitely a welcoming set.
Your role as DEA Kim Martinez in the series Strike Back was physically challenging one. What would you say are some of the differences between bringing criminals in on that show and prosecuting them on this one?
(laughs) Yeah, that was the thing about it that really struck a chord with me, because I literally looked at it from that perspective. Here’s an opportunity for me to play someone who is a complete contrast to this woman who was trained to fight. Now, I’m trained to fight but from a legal standpoint. So the fighter in me still exists in these characters. It’s all about what weapon I’m using, and now the weapon of choice is my brain.
I know that spilling secrets are a huge no-no in Shondaland, but how much can you tell us about your character’s arc this season?
(laughs) What’s is interesting is that it’s now been established that there’s got to be a point where Annalise HAS to find out that Nate is sleeping with Rene, and has a life outside of her world. So that’s kind of going to, you would imagine, lead me in a different place and put our dynamic, their dynamic on the forefront, seeing how she responds or reacts to that.
I thought it’s interesting that a lot of people thought I was responsible for the flyers and putting those flyers up and trying to bring her down, but the flyers were established before my character was. And I just felt like that wouldn’t be my [character’s] method. So I think the arc will maybe reveal that a little more.
Reveal that your character wouldn’t attack Annalise in that way or attack her at all?
I’m not going to say that. (laughs) I am going to say that the following episodes will reveal more of who I am and my intentions.
Lastly, what is your dream role?
I would love to do a biography. I won’t necessarily articulate who I would like to play because I would be open to a lot of options, but for me, the ability to study someone who the world knows is an incredible feat. To bring life to someone and be able to do it where they no longer see you, the actor, but become their idea of who that person is.
I always look at Malcolm X and Denzel Washington. The image, the idea, the judgment placed on this man and what it meant to a lot of people I know and to me. And I’ve had this conversation before with people who’ve read the autobiography of Malcolm X. When Denzel portrayed him, you knew who Denzel was, and you knew who Malcolm X was, but when he took on this role, he was able to fuse these two people, and you forget that Denzel doesn’t look anything like Malcolm! (laughs) But at that moment, through the movie, he did.
I just would love the opportunity of like a Walk the Line with Johnny Cash or Angela Bassett with Tina Turner. We all know what Tina Turner looks like, or with Ike Turner, we are all aware what Laurence looks like. But when they enveloped or embodied the spirit their interpretation of this person, you got it; you were on this ride the entire time. I would absolutely love to do that.
You can follow on Twitter @ItsMilaunaJemai and catch her as ADA Atwood on How to Get Away with Murder, ABC Thursdays at 10/9c.